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Film Review: True History of the Kelly Gang

5 March 20 words: Ashley Carter

1917's George MacKay gives a manic performance as Ned Kelly in Justin Kurzel's outback Western...

Director: Justin Kurzel
Starring: George MacKay, Essie Davis, Nicholas Hoult
Running time: 124 mins

There is much to admire in Justin Kurzel’s rock-and-roll retelling of Ned Kelly’s story. Not only has he managed to succeed where the likes of Guy Ritchie, James Gray and Guillermo del Toro have failed before him in making Charlie Hunnam appear halfway passable as an actor (albeit one who, during an early scene, has an eight-year-old boy act rings around him), but he’s also crafted a pulsating, intriguing and intensely visceral portrayal of Australia’s most (in)famous outlaw. 

There’s something almost animalistic in George MacKay’s Kelly. The majority of his screen time is spent in various states of undress, his exposed body a contorted, wiry block of sinew and bone. It’s a far cry from the stoic performance the young British actor displayed in 1917. The combined external pressures of a desolate family life, his abject social standing and the brutality of being Irish in 19th century colonial Australia combine to mould a manic anti-hero who wreaks havoc on those who have wronged him and his family, sending him and his gang of miscreants on a tear of robbery and killings, culminating in a stand-off with Constable Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult).

It’s not so much a case that Kurzel has stripped away the mythology surrounding Kelly’s story (as seen in Heath Ledger’s overly-romanticised 2003 portrayal, Ned Kelly) but rather created a mythology of his own. Kelly and his gang are ragged and resplendent as punk-infused, cross-dressing lost boys, swept up in the brutal injustice of colonial Australia and the delusions of grandeur so often seen in adolescent young men. Kelly is like the lad cheered on by his mates to get into a fight, caught up in his own hype and never-quite-sure if his violence is justified. He’s responsible for his own actions, but you can’t help but feel that external forces are carrying him down a path with only one possible conclusion. 

Feels far more truthful, be it emotionally, aesthetically or viscerally, than any other big-screen telling of the story

Of course, Kelly is a victim. To the mother (Essie Davis) who sold him into the service of a batshit bushwhacker for £5, to the bushwhacker himself (a grizzled Russell Crowe) forcing a young Kelly to shoot a police officer, to the same police officer forcing Kelly’s mother to perform sexual acts on him, while a young Ned and his hapless father watch on. Above all, Kelly is a victim of circumstance, born poor in a desolate foreign land, despised by the English for his Irish heritage and scorned by his alcoholic, criminal father. It’s enough to make anyone slap on a tin helmet and go on a shooting spree. 

Much like Kurzel’s Macbeth, True History of the Kelly Gang is a free-form, impressionistic journey down a previously well-trodden cinematic path. His Kelly is more poetic than historic; it’s an exploration of what could motivate the disenfranchised children of white convicts living under the boot of British Imperialism in colonial Australia, rather than an esoteric attempt to discover the ‘real’ Ned Kelly. The result is a film that feels far more truthful, be it emotionally, aesthetically or viscerally, than any other big-screen telling of his story. 

And as his hallucinogenic odyssey reaches its inevitable, tragic conclusion, Kurzel’s film snaps back into harsh focus. Kelly was no superhero or mythical figure invented on the pages of a dime novel. He was flesh and bone, filled with regret, fear, rage and passion – a man too angry to live under British oppression but too young and too scared to die. It’s a film of incredible power and muscle, and a viewing experience that stays with you long after you’ve left the cinema. 

Did you know? True History of the Kelly Gang is the nineteenth time Ned Kelly’s story has been portrayed on screen

True History of the Kelly Gang is screening at Broadway Cinema until Thursday 12 March

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